Celine Sciamma’s sensuous 18th century romantic drama revolves around two women reacting to the pressures society places on them insofar as perceiving marriage as a form of security in exchange for lifelong servitude.
In Brittany near the Atlantic coast, Marianne (Noemioe Merlant) arrives at the seaside chateau of young noblewoman, Heloise (Adele Haenel), to paint her portrait which will be immediately dispatched to a potential suitor in Milan. (Since there was no photography back then, portraits were exchanged for marital match-making purposes.)
Working as an apprentice to her well-known painter father, Marianne often travels to paint subjects on commission. But defiant Heloise, who previously spurned a male artist who tried to paint her, has little interest in posing, which is why her widowed Countess mother (Valeria Golino) asks Marianne to base the portrait on casual observations.
The film’s title has multiple meanings. Obviously, it’s about the painting. It also refers to how Heloise’s flowing frock literally goes up in flames, as if their forbidden carnality makes her gown spontaneously combust.
And there’s a subtle subplot involving the maid Sophie (Luana Bajrami), whose artistic outlet is her embroidery hoop; she introduces Marianne and Heloise into a group of welcoming women.
According to director/screenwriter Sciamma (Girlhood), the reason why there’s no score, aside from two musical interludes, is because she wanted to emphasize the rhythms in the body movements through cinematographer Claire Mathon’s camera. In the festival scene, the women chant “non possunt fugere,” which is Latin for “they cannot escape.”
Off-screen, Sciamma and Adele Haenel are ex-lovers who split amicably before filming. “Celine and I are interested in the same thing,” Haenel explains. “We are fighting for ideas and looking for beauty, but we are also playing all the time.”
And Marianne’s portraiture is actually the artwork of Helene Delmaire.
In French with English subtitles, on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is an erotic 8, an exquisitely articulated lesbian love story.